Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Pay Your Enemy

James Miller at Overcoming Bias recently asked why people support imprisonment but not torture. One commenter suggested that because some people enjoy torturing others, it hampers their incentives to restrain its use. James replied: "This is a valid argument against torture but it is even a stronger argument against the use of fines as a form of punishment."

An excellent point: why should someone pay the state when they break the law? Not only does it give the government a powerful incentive to abuse its power (see recent Virgina speeding laws), it also assuages the deterrent effect to those with a great deal of faith in government. "Sure I have to pay $100 but at least that money will go to help people." It seems more reasonable to make people pay someone they don't like. Most, I suspect, would rather see $100 go to the state than $50 go to their enemy.I can think of three ways to pull this off, but none are ideal by any means.

1. Pay to a customized "bad guy." In theory, everyone has some person, organization, or idea they don't like. Greens hate oil companies. Free traders look down on protection-seeking unions. Catholics detest abortion clinics. When one group breaks the law, make them pay the other group. The problem is knowing who's who. Sure, there's a lot of information out there but firms may not be so willing to hand it over (and the government might actually prefer that information to money so we'll be right back where we started). And still, some information is hard to get: ex-lovers rarely get along but it'll be costly for the government to figure out who dated who.

2. Make the punishment fit the crime. The logistics of this are a lot easier: tailor each law to an organization that would probably be at odds with the accused. Hunt without a license? Donate to PETA. Drunk driver? Send money to AA. Of course the problem becomes how will these organizations respond when they find out they are being paid when other's break the law? How much will it take before Disabled American Veterans starts encouraging people to park in a handicap space?

3. Send to everyone's hate group. Virtually everyone in this country hates neo-Nazis and the KKK. Why not assemble a list of such groups and the accused must send money to one at random? This would certainly mitigate the problems in 2. But the issue becomes how many organizations like these are there? 100? Maybe 200? Even accounting for deterrence, that's hundreds of millions of dollars (maybe billions of dollars) sent to just a handful of organizations each year. What happens when the KKK has a billion dollar endowment? Forget possible terrorist attacks; think how many people would suddenly like to join, or even start their own hate group!

Clearly there are some tweaks to work out.

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